“Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” That is the question the Pharisees direct toward the disciples. They saw them “pulling off grain-heads, shelling them with their hands and eating them.”
Jewish law required that landowners allow the poor and the hungry to eat the grain in the fields so long as they did not harvest it in baskets. Thus, the Pharisees could not have been concerned with theft of the grain. They were accusing the disciples of breaking Jewish law against work on the Sabbath including harvesting, threshing and winnowing grain, as well as preparing food. However minimally, the disciples were obviously doing all of those.
Although the question was directed toward the disciples, it is Jesus who responds. Jesus doesn’t explain or defend the disciples’ actions. Rather, he reminds the Pharisees of their history: “Have you not read what David did when he and his men were hungry – how he entered God’s house and took and ate the holy bread and gave it to his men, even though only priests are allowed to eat it?’ This was the bread that 1 Samuel 21 tells us was provided for the priests and could be shared with the poor. In that way, Jesus was showing how he was providing food for the disciples just as David (even though he was not yet king) fed his own men when they were hungry. Jesus could also be reminding us that he will give each of us the Bread of Life to sustain us through our lives.
Jesus is telling his disciples, the Pharisees and us that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Jesus’ answer doesn’t break or abolish the law. He fulfills it and expands it to benefit all people. Jesus is much more concerned with bringing the grace and mercy of God to every situation. Laws and institutions that have been divinely inspired are given to us so that we may all have life to the full. They are not meant for us to use as a measure of one another’s faithfulness to God’s love.
As Paul tells us in his Letter to the Colossians: “Hold fast to faith, be firmly grounded and steadfast in it, unshaken in the hope promised you by the gospel you have heard.” That promised hope is the grace and mercy of God in every situation that Jesus evinces for us in his Passion, Death and Resurrection and his promise to be with us always.